Today’s featured writer: Jodi Paloni
The featured writing: They Could Live with Themselves (including a free giveaway copy of her book!)
The Sunday Spotlight has been on a hiatus lately, with the busy summer months. When I began this series, I posted a new spotlight every week. It was great fun and super inspiring (check out the library of past spotlights, featuring many talented writers!), but it was also extremely time consuming, and I soon found that maintaining the weekly structure put a bit of a strain on my ability to carve out time for my own writing amidst the demands of daily life. I am happy to announce that with this installment, featuring fiction writer Jodi Paloni, The Sunday Spotlight is back in action(!), and I am moving to a monthly installment that will appear on the first Sunday of every month.
Jodi Paloni and I attended Vermont College of Fine Arts together. Jodi studied fiction, and I creative nonfiction, so we never had the pleasure of sharing a workshop, but I knew when she read at her graduation in 2011 an excerpt of “Molly Sings the Blues”—from her linked short story collection They Could Live with Themselves (published May 3, 2016 by Press 53)—that she would definitely have a book one day and that that book would be fabulous and a must read. So I was thrilled and not surprised when I learned that Jodi’s manuscript had been awarded runner-up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and offered publication.
They Could Live with Themselves takes place in the fictional town of Stark Run, Vermont. As a linked-story collection, characters repeat, sometimes in minute detail and sometimes in more profound ways, acting as threads that weave the stories together into a cohesive, multi-layered cloth. In this weaving, the place of Stark Run takes on its own role of a character as the people, their relationships, and the happenings of their daily life revolve around and within the sleepy, rural town.
I can’t say enough about Jodi’s collection. Quite simply, I LOVE this book. I love everything about it: the characters, the setting, the dialogue, the details, the homespun feel the town of Stark Run depicts and how accurately it reflects life in a small-town community, like that of the town where I live in Southern Oregon, where people still hang their laundry on the line to dry and seem to know each other’s business. Jodi’s prose is deft and her narration compelling. These stories will both make you laugh and tug at your heart in deep and, at times, almost sorrowful ways. To get a taste of Jodi’s writing, check out “The Air of Joy” (published at Connotation Press) and “The Third Element” (published at Carve Magazine), both stories from They Could Live with Themselves.
Book Giveaway! Last April at the AWP conference, in addition to my own copy, Jodi gave me a copy of They Could Live with Themselves to offer up as a giveaway here on the blog. To enter to win, leave a comment below. You have one week to do so. I’ll pick randomly from the list and announce the winner next Sunday here on the blog.
Jodi Paloni is the debut author of the linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, and runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize, placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, and was recently a finalist in the Maine Literary Award Short Competition Award. Her stories appear in a number of print and on-line literary journals: Green Mountains Review, Carve Magazine, upstreet, Whitefish Review, Contrary Magazine, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A full-time resident of Vermont for twenty-five years, she now shares her time between Maine and Vermont.
A few questions for Jodi:
Can you talk about the evolution of They Could Live with Themselves? Did you initially set out to write a linked story collection, or was it something that evolved as you were writing the stories? If the latter, when did you realize you were dealing with a linked collection as opposed to individual stand-alone stories, and how did that change your perception of the project?
These are good questions, Laurie. Linkage in short fiction is a topic I’ve thought a lot about over the course of writing this book. In the first semester of my MFA program at VCFA, I was advised to set a flailing novel attempt aside and work on short stories for the purposes of learning craft in more bite-sized pieces. Taking that advice worked well for me. I was then reading tons of short fiction, trying my best to make sense of the form. By the end of the first semester, I’d written a twenty-six-page story, “Blight,” about a group of townspeople in Stark Run, Vermont. There were a lot of characters in that story, which is unusual, but not unheard of. Anyway, the townspeople were gathering at the general store the day after a double crisis at the harvest fair. “Blight” is an aftermath story. While that initial story did not make it into this book, many of the characters did. As much as I tried to make “Blight” work as a stand-alone story (and still do try!), I feel the purpose of that first Stark Run story was to allow me to create a small world of people living the rural life, what is what I know best. Many of the characters were fleshed out later, some are still waiting, but the essence of each character, and the town feeling, was formed then and there.
Because I was previously such a fan of the novel form, one of my teachers mentioned that I might like to read Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, and a number of other books that are considered “linked” collections. The thought was that I could study the short form, but because of the linkages, get a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” feel after reading the book start to finish. In writing about one place and one set of people, I could sustain interest in a broader context, while getting to try out a variety of voices and tenses and other aspects of fiction craft. Right up until the week before the manuscript went to print, I was tweaking the final story of the collection, “The Physics of Light,” a story I wrote after the book was signed with Press 53, a story that, although it may stand completely on its own two feet, pulls all of the stories into a multi-textured package that before the existence of that story had not completely occurred. It was amazing to watch that phenomenon unfold before my eyes, as if by some “otherworldly” force at play.
Here’s my perception: a linked story collection is a group of stand-alone stories and not opposed to the individual stand-alone form. Each of the stories in TCLWT may be read as a single story, and, hopefully, if I’ve done my job well, the reader may feel satisfied. When read as a group, the reader may experience something altogether different.
One of the things I find so compelling in this collection is the characters. They are fully formed and complex while being thoroughly accessible and realistic. Does this come naturally to you? Do you base characters on or borrow traits from actual people, or are they purely from your imagination?
Thanks, Laurie. That’s a huge compliment, as I like characters, their interior landscapes, to drive my plots. I have a rich interior life, which can be a burden, and perhaps why I like to spill it onto the page. To paint an exterior rendition of all those thoughts and feelings and imaginings, well, it somehow lifts the weight. It’s my view that imagination is a multi-dimensional version of everything I’ve ever learned through experience. Pure imagination? I’m not sure what that is, but I can tell you, I’m very interested in imagined ideas whether they be about what’s possible or what is. So I’d say my characters are a conglomerate of the “actual” and the imagined, and a third thing, too, the influence of other fictional characters I’ve read, someone else’s imagined characters which become as real as real is to me.
Is it Jung that said when you dream you represent everyone and everything in the dream? I think some part of me is in every one of the characters. That’s what I tell friends and family, people who say they are sure they are this character or that one. It saves me from the more awkward responses. Ha!
The book takes place in the fictional town of Stark Run, Vermont. Writer David Jauss says, “The town and its people come so utterly to life that no matter where you’re from you’ll feel like you’re home.” I find this so true, and as a VCFA grad who used to visit Vermont twice a year for residency, it was quite comforting immersing myself in the place of Stark Run and its community. You are a fairly recent transfer from being a long-time Vermont resident to one of Maine. How does place influence you, not only in your writing, but in your daily life experience? Has your writing about place changed since moving to Maine?
I am so honored to have learned from Dave Jauss and to have his endorsement on the book. He was influential in teaching me how to bring life to the language. Place is everything to me in reading and in writing. First I hear a character’s “voice” and am off and running. But place forms voice, and I always see the story, the setting for the opening scene, before I get too far down the first page. I find I like to be physically present in the places I write about. So now I write stories (and a novel) set in Maine.
Many readers have asked for a “sequel” to TCLWT. That may happen, as I have at least a dozen stories about that town in my draft stable. I think that because I lived in Vermont for 25 years, and go back once a month, I could conjure Stark Run from anywhere I dwell. I also find that when I’m visiting a place, Rome, let’s say, or the Delaware shore, I want to write a story set there, a travel story maybe. In “Molly Sings the Blues” there is a vacation scene on a Maine beach. That scene was written while I was vacationing in Maine, years ago, writing on the backs of checks in my checkbook since I had no other paper with me. I wonder where those are?
If you had to pick a favorite character (or characters) from your collection and a favorite story, which would they be? (I know this is a difficult question, but I just had to ask!)
Molly, definitely, no, wait, it’s Melissa Wiley, for sure, no, Wren, Addison, or, maybe, Sky. You’re right, that’s a difficult question. I think I have favorite moments more than favorite characters. I love the moment when Molly tells Crystal that she doesn’t know what she likes. And the tender ending in “Wonder Woman,” I want to replay that moment over and over and feel what Rory must have felt. And I laugh out loud when Molly calls Jack from her yoga cleanse retreat and he thinks they’re going to have phone sex, but she confesses that she’s fled the building and ordered a pizza and starts to cry and he gets that this isn’t going to be that call. Ha! I cry at the end of “Accommodations,” every single time. And in “Deep End,” Jillanna, when she goes back to the swimming pool, that one clutches at my heart, too.
Can you share with us what the publishing process was like as a debut author?
So far, it’s been nothing short of amazing. Kevin at Press 53 has been a wonderful editor. He’s laid back and on top of it, too. He such a fan of the work, or he wouldn’t have accepted it for publication. He champions his authors, short fiction writers and poets, mostly. I’d venture to say that he’s all about the art and the author and the rest of it, the business end of things, falls into place.
Personally, I’ve committed to paying close attention to all aspects of the publishing journey: the nuts and bolts of marketing and promotion, the emotional roller coaster ride, the high energy and the lulls in activity, how having a book and a growing readership should or shouldn’t impact the writing I’m doing now, how much I love reading to people, but how hard it is to walk into a bookstore or library and say, Here I am! Look at my book!! Let me read to you!!! There’s a lot of work involved post publication. I’m trying real hard to focus on the next book, get to the page every day, move forward while giving TCLWT the love back for all the love it’s given me. Imagine balancing career and mothering. The book is like the child, and the career is about being a writer while having the child, always there, to nurture and help shepherd into the world.
On a slightly different note, a more, OMG note, there’s a copy of the book that I wrote on our coffee table and in my daughter’s nightstand, and on my sister’s porch, and facing out at our local bookstore. It’s crazy!
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
Like for many author, stories became the worlds in which I preferred to dwell during the difficult times in my life, starting at a very young age and continuing still. I reached for books to relax, too, just for fun. I love everything about books: the physical aspects, the smell, the promise, the way they make me feel and understand the world.
Who are some of your favorite authors that were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
So many. O’Connor, Welty, Carver, and Munro all influence my short work, as well as, a number of more contemporary story writers, Alan Heathcock, Dylan Landis, Robin Black, far too many to list. I’ve mentioned Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which was, still is, extremely influential. I’ve read that book four times! I am moved by the prose of Kent Haruf, Alistair MacLeod, and Jeanette Winterson. Currently I’m enjoying Maine writers, Jim Nichols, Lily King, Debra Spark, and revisiting Richard Ford’s short stories.
All of these writers conjure a reader experience that sticks, whether it’s in building a sense of place, or leaving a mark by a kick-ass character, or merging grit and heart with compassion. For different reasons, they teach me something, and leave me gutted in some way.
Are there any particular books you’d like to recommend to readers?
Here’s a list of 8, a random pull from my “favorites” shelf. This could be a different list tomorrow.
The Maytrees, Annie Dillard; Persuasion, Jane Austen; Housekeeping, Marilyn Robinson; Plainsong, Kent Haruf; My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout; Glaciers, Alexis M. Smith; Lighthousekeeping, Jeanette Winterson; Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Are you willing to share what you are working on now?
I’m working on a collection of short stories involving the coming of age and aging of three female characters over the span of forty or more years, each character coming from a different class. None of that was planned out, but having done this once now, I am more cognizant of the structuring as I go approach and I have been more aware in my editorial choices. Also, I’m very excited about the novel I’m writing, my fourth attempt at it, set in Maine. I can work on stories when I have short bits of time to jump in and out. For the novel, I feel I need full immersion. Summer in Maine doesn’t allow for much immersion, but I am planning on going deep during the late summer and fall months ahead. Wish me luck, Laurie.
What writing advice do you have for other aspiring authors?
Walk the precarious balance of discipline and play, inspiration and the dark end of discouragement, which I feel can help the work. Carve out sacred time to commit to the page. And take your writing into the woods and to art museums, to concerts, to eat ice cream. Feed the part of you that works hard at words and, equally, the part that clears the head and woos the muse. Let the voice say what it wants, everything it wants, even if you have to lasso it later on. And when the going gets rough, go with that, too. It’s all writing.